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Three People in One:
Agnes White Thomas
By WILLIAM RUEHLMANN
Ledger-Star Staff Writer
NORFOLK—This is a woman who once earned $1,500
for writing one line of light verse.
Eat your heart out, Rod McKuen.
This is also a woman who wrangled a job teaching col
lege by pulling a fast one on the phone.
And this is a woman who single-handedly started an an
nual author’s conference here because “well, somebody
Agnes White Thomas, 68, believes in PMA.
“That’s a Positive Mental Attitude,” Mrs. Thomas said.
“Believe in God and yourself, and you can do anything.
She spoke in her Meadowbrook Gardens apartment
knitting a white tam o’shanter. Mrs. Thomas doesn’t want
to lose a whole hour just sitting around and being inter
viewed. So she knits.
Beside her on the couch is a box of Kraft Macaroni and
Cheese Dinner. On the back of the box is an entry blank for
a contest to win a 1978 Ford Fiesta. Contestants must
finish the phrase “I like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Din
ner because” in 25 words or less.
“I’m going to win that car,” Mrs. Thomas said.
Maybe you think she won’t. Here are a few of the things
she has won in the past; An electric range, a sailboat, two
ponies, twenty-five watches, three refrigerators, two fur
Sixteen television sets.
“Each of my relatives has one in every room,” Mrs.
An electric blanket. A basketball. A baby palm tree.
Paul Anka’s bulky gold Italian sweater.
“I gave that to my daughter-in-law,” Mrs. Thomas
says. “She was impressed.”
And a brain quicker than a pickpocket at a sheriff’s
As her friends will attest, Agnes White Thomas is at
least three people. It is said if you stand still and concen
trate you can see these people passing each other on a par
ticularly busy day. Let us take them one at a time.
Agnes White Thomas, contestant. Twenty years ago,
Mrs. Thomas saw an ad in the local paper for Barr
Brothers Jewelers. There were dots all over the ad,
thousands of them, and the person who could correctly
count the dots would win a wrist watch.
In case of a tie, the most original entry would win.
“How do you be original counting a bunch of dots?”
Mrs. White wondered.
PMA. She knitted a wool watch and submitted her entry
on that. In retiun she won one with 30 diamonds on it.
Then she won a fur coat by counting the leaves on a tree
in another ad. She sent her entry in with a box of real
leaves and a poem. The poem:
“Leaves, leaves, everywhere.
“I see them when I sleep.
“When I have insomnia
“I count leaves instead of sheep.”
This continued. When she won |1,500 from Overton’s
Market for telling why she went there (Mrs. Thomas isn’t
sure of the line any more, except she coined the word
“quizzard” in it), other ladies who won lesser prizes con
tacted her for pointers. Thus began the Sport of Entry
Club, comprised of a dozen women who still get together
once a month to share entry blanks, contest bulletins and
“Contesting isn’t what it was,” Mrs. Thomas points out.
There was a time when she was averaging $l,000-plus a
year in winnings. Now it comes in increments, like the $5
Mrs. Thomas won for a National Safety Council jingle last
month. The villian: sweepstakes.
“All you have to do is sign your name for those,” she
says. “That’s not very creative. And,” she adds with
distaste, “it’s gambling.”
Editor’s Note: The following article
is reprinted with permission from THE
LEDGER-STAR of Norfolk, Va. The
story was written by William
Ruehlmann and the photograph is by
Karen Kasmauski. They appeared in
the Daily Break section of THE
LEDGER-STAR We would like to
thank Kay T. McGraw, editor, The
Daily Break, for her assistance.
“Agnes Thomas never
wastes a minute, and I mean
Sport of Enfry Club
Sweepstakes don’t require the “qualies” (qualifying
boxtops, coupons) the more inventive contests do. They
don’t have judges. Nobody to recognize the unsung $100
genius who wrote this forgotten gem:
“Within this vale
“Your head grows bald
“But not your chin.
“Yes, I’d like a special name to call
“This finer shortening by.
“Swift’s Bland Lard outperforms them all,
“All Cook’s Tours testify.”
Or Mrs. Thomas’ own award-winning send-off for the
Oh Donne, oh Milton, oh Edgar Guest.
“Some say it’s a dying art,” Mrs. Thomas says with a
sigh. “But we’re always hopeful they’ll come back.
There’s still enough to keep us interested and at it.”
* Agnes White Thomas, teacher. She was the oldest girl
in a family of 12 reared in the backwoods hills of North
Carolina. The daughter of a farmer, she admired her two
aunts, who were teachers.
“I never did any plowing,” Mrs. Thomas recalls, “but I
did just about everything else. I fed the pigs, milked the
cows, dug peas, harvested tobacco. Even then I was in
terested in English and writing.”
She wrote papers for other students at a quarter apiece.
Mrs. Thomas was valedictorian of Murfreesborough High
School. By borrowing money and waiting on tables in a
boarding house, she kept on going for her baccalaureate
at Chowan College, majoring in English.
“I couldn’t get a job after I graduated,” Mrs Thomas
says. “Everybody asked me how much experience I had.
Well, I was 21 years old and I didn’t have experience in
anything but picking cotton.”
She got a position in Norfolk as a waitress. It lasted ex
actly one night.
Let’s just say I was insulted by some of the men who
came in,” Mrs. Thomas says, “what you might caU fresh
But one of those she met that night was a gentleman. He
Mrs. Thomas with rhymes to spore on file
asked the proprietress to introduce him. (Mrs. Thomas
had been taught not to talk to strangers unless properly in
That was W.O.Thomas, in the heating and air condition
ing business. He didn’t drink. He followed her back to the
“He was,” Mrs. Thomas says waimly, “a Christian
They were married. Mrs. Thomas had four children, all
grown now and themselves parents. When the boys were
in school, Mrs. Thomas took up teaching again, first as a
substitute, then as a tutor for homebound students.
One day, when Old Dominion University was still an ex
tension school of the CoUege of William and Mary, Mrs.
Thomas called the school to enroll in a creative writing
class. She was told there was unfortunately no such class.
“I thought for a while,” Mrs. Thomas says. “Then I
changed my voice and called back. I said, “I hear you’re
looking for a creative writing teacher...”
She got the job.
She has bwn teaching there since. One friend and
former student, Lottie Pidgeon, learned her lesson well.
Mrs. Pidgeon has won 12 bikes, several appliances, a boat
and a brand new MG.
Agnes White Thomas, writer. More than two decades
ago, somebody wrote a story in The Virginia-Pilot saying
substitute teachers were mere “baby sitters.” Mrs.
Thomas, substitute teacher, was no baby sitter.
She saw red.
Her article on the value of such teaching appeared in the
newspaper as a response. That was her first literary sale.
She got $25.
After that, her poetry began appearing in The Saturday
Evening Post, The Wall Street Journal, Grit.
“Her face was not real pretty,
“Her hair an awful sight;
“But her dress was cut so low
“He could have glanced all night.”
Continued on Next Page
or April-May, 1979